Snowy owls in Indiana

by Neil A. Case

Snowy owls are erratic, unpredictable, rare winter visitors to Indiana. I’ve seen a snowy owl in Indiana twice. Each time, someone else saw it before I did. The first time, the spotter picked me up and took me to see the owl. The second time, a friend called and told me where it was, in his driveway and it stayed there long enough for my wife and I to drive to my friend’s home and see it.

A snowy owl is about the size of a great horned owl. Its eyes are yellow like a great horned, but its head is rounded, without feather tufts like a great horned. It’s white, of course, named for its color, but the white is spotted with small arcs of black. The amount of black varies, females and immature birds having more than adult males.

Snowy owls, when they come to Indiana and other states south of the Canadian border and to approximately the southern two-thirds of Canada, come from the treeless Arctic tundra. There they nest on the ground in the tundra vegetation. There they hunt, catch and feed on lemmings and other small animals.

Lemmings have a cyclic population dynamic. Their numbers increase over a period of years, then drop suddenly and dramatically. When the lemming population crashes and winter comes, making lemmings that remain hard to find, snowy owls have a food shortage. That’s when many fly south.

The southern movement of snowy owls is not a migration. Some fly south every winter but they haven’t any apparent winter ground. They wander. They’ve been seen and reported as far south as Virginia, South Carolina, Oklahoma and central California. But many snowy owls flying south only happens every four, five or six years, sometimes even longer. When it does it’s called an irruption.

Owls are birds of the night. Not snowy owls, but most owls. Their home is north of the Arctic Circle where sun shines day and night through the summer. They have to hunt when the sun shines for at least half the year. Further, there are no trees, at least none of any size, and no brush, no place for birds as big as snowy owls to hide where they nest, which makes them birds of the open. When they travel south, they are often seen sitting conspicuously on the ground, on ice, or perched on a fence post or a power line pole. One of those I saw was on a power pole, the other, as I said, in a driveway, on the ground.

I’ve heard of other snowy owls in Indiana, and I’ve looked for some of them. When a snowy owl finds good hunting some place, it often stays for a several days, or it may return to an area on and off. But only the two have been there when I was looking for them. If I had gone to the Michigan City area, to the shore of Lake Michigan in winter, I would likely have seen other snowy owls. They are seen there almost every winter, but the weather along the shore of Lake Michigan in winter doesn’t appeal to me.

Earlier this month I was notified of another snowy owl. Mrs. Tia Buckland and her husband returned to their home in Kendallville one afternoon and found a snowy owl perched on their telephone pole. They watched it for nearly three hours, until it flew, and Mrs. Buckland has photographs of it. She later called the local newspaper office, got my email address and sent me a message telling of the owl. She also sent her phone number and copies of her photographs of the owl.

I called, told Mrs. Buckland the owl might return, and asked her if it did to please call me. She hasn’t called. Once again I missed seeing another snowy owl in Indiana.

Posted on 2014 Jan 14